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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Europe and Bio-Tech Foods

Air Date: Week of

Bob Carty reports on opposition to genetically-altered foods in Europe. Bio-tech producers like Monsanto say protesters are using scare-tactics to urge grocers to pull products from shelves. But a new study from Scotland that suggests genetically-modified potatoes harmed the immune system of rats has added fuel to the debate.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. There's a revolution going on at your dinner table. Whether you know it or not, most Americans are now eating genetically-modified foods, from crops like corn, potatoes, canola, and soybeans. Just 4 years ago no one was commercially growing these novel foods. But this year, agribusiness and farmers are planting more than 75 million acres with biotech-modified crops. Most Americans seem unaware that so many changes are happening to our food supply. But in Europe, 8 major grocery chains have banned what they call Frankenstein foods. And the public rejection has caught the biotech industry by surprise. Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty reports on the roots of the European resistance.

(A crowd shouts: "Say no to GMOs! Say no to GMOs!")

CARTY: It's hard to say what the turning point was, the moment when in their hearts and heads so many Europeans decided they didn't want to eat genetically-modified foods.

(The crowd continues to shout)

CARTY: It is clear that Europeans started to take their concerns to the streets about a year ago. June 1998. About the time when the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, decided that royal diplomacy notwithstanding, he had something to say. He didn't like biotech foods. He wouldn't consume them, and he wouldn't serve them to his family or guests.



NEWSCASTER: The big American biotechnological company Monsanto has been defending itself against a strong attack from Prince Charles. He criticized the practice of genetically modifying food, saying he believed that the use of the technology took mankind into the realms that belonged to God and God alone.

(Cheering crowd)

WOMAN ON MICROPHONE: We don't want gentically engineered foods. We don't want gentically engineered food.

CARTY: Just days after that declaration by Prince Charles, protest groups began uprooting test fields of biotech crops. On one foggy night in Ireland, something called the Gaelic Earth Liberation Front attacked a Monsanto test plot of genetically-engineered sugar beets, and ceremoniously beheaded the plants.

MONSANTO SPOKESMAN: This is pure scare-mongering based on no facts, and of course farmers will still have the choice not to use these products if it's not economically of benefit to them to do so.

CARTY: It fell to officials of the Monsanto company, a leader in the industry, and certainly the most aggressive apostle of biotech foods, to try to dispel British fears. Monsanto launched a multi-million-dollar ad campaign extolling the benign benefits of genetic engineering. But the campaign backfired.

(Music: "Coming through now. We're changing you now! The Mother Nature terminators of food and health and hope. 'Cause we're Monsanto! That's right, Monsanto!...")

CARTY: Across Europe, biotech foods became identified with Monsanto, and Monsanto with the specter of powerful American corporations disdainful of consumers and willing to risk human health for profits. Even members of Parliament were upset.

(Cheering crowds)

MAN: There's a hidden revolution going on in this country. This revolution's being driven by a small number of unelected, multinational companies largely based in America, at the expense of the environment, at the expense of farmers, and at the expense of consumers.

(Crowd cheers again)

CARTY: By the middle of last year, European shoppers were demanding labels on genetically altered foods. School districts in England began banning them from cafeterias. Then a major grocery store announced it would not carry any, and its sales went up. In England, 9 out of 10 consumers said that given the choice, they would avoid biotech foods. In the United States, meanwhile, one poll revealed a mere 3% of Americans were even aware that they were already eating genetically-altered food. And few had any problems with it. That had Peter Montague scratching his head. Montague is the director of the Environmental Research Foundation in Annapolis, Maryland. As he watched the growing European rejection of biotech food, he tried to understand its cultural roots.

MONTAGUE: Europeans are very concerned about this. They have fresh in their memories, at least fresh in the memories of older people, the Nazi experiments with eugenics to produce a super race by genetic selection. So they're not, they don't think of this as a benign technology. They think of it as evil. The experience in England and France with Mad Cow Disease has undercut the credibility of government. And in general, I think Europeans are more concerned about the taste and the nutritional quality of what they eat.

CARTY: European opposition to biotech food was not merely cultural. For months the press reported on the latest scientific studies, suggesting that genetically- modified crops could increase resistance in insects, increase pesticide use, promote the development of super-weeds, and possibly damage beneficial insects and birds. But the pot really started to boil with news reports of a scientist who said biotech foods could be harmful to humans.

NEWSCASTER: Today, there's a bit more evidence of the possible risks, the first evidence that GM food can actually damage our health. Researchers at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen fed rats with a new strain of potatoes that had been genetically altered to make them resistant to disease. The rats suffered from damage to their immune systems.

CARTY: The scientist who was experimenting with genetically-altered potatoes and rats was Arpad Pusztai. Arpad Pusztai had escaped Hungary during the 1956 Communist crackdown. He came to Scotland, became a chemist, and for 35 years he worked as a research scientist at the Rowett Institute, publishing 275 research papers and 3 books. He was anything but a naysayer of biotechnology. In fact, he got a $3 million research grant to explore genetic engineering. He thought it might even make him rich. He expected only positive results.

PUSZTAI: I expected the scientists working at Los Alamos during the Second World War were probably in the same situation. They were so heavily taken up and concentrating on the job at hand that they didn't have really much time to think about the implications. And I probably was in the same situation. Please don't think that I was hostile to this technology.

CARTY: But Arpad Pusztai came to the conclusion that people already eating genetically-modified foods were being used, without their consent, as guinea pigs in a mass experiment. And he said so in one brief television appearance. Well, that didn't go down well with the scientific establishment, and with politicians who had spent millions promoting biotech foods. Pusztai was forced into retirement. His scientific reputation was pilloried. But because of contract restrictions, he couldn't publish and he couldn't talk. Until now. In one of the few interviews he has given to the North American media, Pusztai explained that he was trying to find out if a certain kind of protein, called lectin, could be genetically added to crops to make them resistant to pests, without harming an animal like a rat. So he fed one group of rats potatoes laced with lectin. Other rats ate potatoes genetically engineered to make the same amount of lectin themselves. He thought that neither group would show adverse effects to such low levels of lectin. The surprise came in the group of rats eating transgenic potatoes.

PUSZTAI: Young, rapidly-growing rats, which are developing their internal organs, they are preparing for life. And the liver was depressed. Some problem with the immune system, totally surprising. We still don't know what the explanation for it. But I would stake my professional reputation on it that we do see these changes. You can only reject them at your own peril.

CARTY: The peril, according to Arpad Pusztai, is not the foreign gene inserted into the potato, but perhaps the way it is inserted. Most genetic engineering processes not only add an extra gene, they also add marker genes and virus DNA to promote or enhance the working of the new gene. Pusztai suspects that those promoters, or vectors, may be what injured the rats. Most genetically-altered foods already on the market use those vectors. It is important to point out that Pusztai's research has not yet been peer reviewed and published, and it remains to be replicated by other scientists. And so the media shouldn't jump to conclusions about the findings, according to Brian Fristensky, a plant geneticist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Fristensky suspects Pusztai's research may in some way be flawed, and he says that even if it isn't, the results don't mean a lot for the biotech industry.

FRISTENSKY: Maybe the best way to put it into perspective is to say that if you have a disaster like the Exxon Valdez oil spill, you don't see everyone giving up their cars. We don't eliminate an industry simply because we see one thing that we might not like. What we do is we work to improve it. Most of the people working in our field don't feel that there's any real intrinsic safety problem with genetically-modified plants that would be any different than you would get with traditional breeding.

CARTY: Nonetheless, Arpad Pusztai does have his supporters. Brian Goodwin is a theoretical geneticist at Shoemacker College in England.

GOODWIN: I think that Dr. Pusztai's results could well spell the death knoll of biotechnology in agriculture. Even if Pusztai's results turn out to be not as significant as we thought, the public has now been alerted to the dangers of this. And the questions that people are asking are: is it worth taking these risks with this technology? He showed that there weren't adequate tests done on the foods that were being produced by transgenic methods.


NEWSCASTER: There are more signs that consumers are turning against genetically-modified food, with the move by three fast food outlets to ban them from their menus.

WOMAN: We don't want to have genetically engineered foods...

NEWSCASTER: The owners of restaurants, cafes, and take-aways, and other caterers are to be fined up to 5,000 pounds if they fail to inform customers that the food they're buying contains certain genetically-modified ingredients.

(Cheering crowd)

WOMAN: [Speaks in Spanish]

CARTY: Communications strategists call what is happening in Europe a public relations meltdown for biotech foods. This week, the British Medical Association called for a moratorium on biotech food cultivation until more research determines if it could lead to allergies, antibiotic resistance, or other harm to humans. All of which is already affecting North Americans. U.S. corn farmers have seen their sales to Europe fall dramatically because the crop contains genetically-modified corn, which can't be separated from ordinary corn. Still, the biotech industry believes it can weather the storm. Mike Montague is the Director of Research Operations for the Monsanto Corporation in St. Louis.

MONTAGUE: The movement of genes from one organism to another certainly sounds scary even on the surface of it. Its interesting that virtually every new technology that has ever been introduced throughout the history of the world has met with resistance. Sometimes it comes from a perceived issue of safety. Ultimately, as people learn more about the real value of the technology, and learn more about the real safety margins of the technology, the technology is adopted.

CARTY: But others say the reverse is true: that the more people know about genetically-altered foods, the less they like them. Certainly in Europe, the acceptance of these products has been set back at least 5 years, maybe longer, according to some analysts. And slowly, in the U.S., farmers and food processors are beginning to debate the marketing merits, if not the scientific safety, of these new products. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty.



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